English in Japan

It is possible to get by in Japan without any knowledge of Japanese, as signs, (information) booklets etc. in major cities are usually available in English. However, any situations where you require more information or a consultation might pose a problem, as doctors, bank staff, train conductors, police officers and the like generally aren't able to converse in English.

All Japanese people learn English as a second language in junior and senior high school (this is currently being extended down to elementary school). While most visitors coming to the country may assume that the general standard of English is very high, English is actually not that important in Japanese society outside of business. Unless they are working for a global business and their post requires English, most people lose their language ability after finishing school because they don't need to use it in everyday life or for work. Furthermore, Japan's highly-pressurized exam culture means that schools mostly focus on reading and writing skills in English class rather than communication. For this reason, many Japanese people don't feel confident about speaking in English and instead feel more confident when writing.

Of course, this doesn't mean there isn't anyone who you can communicate with or go to if you are in trouble. There are still plenty of Japanese people who can speak English very well in the larger cities, many of whom may have worked or studied abroad for a moment of time. There are English-language support networks (providing lifestyle support, counselling services etc.) which are available to help people who are living in that area. There are also numerous social groups aimed at expats out there, started either by other expats to help each other out or Japanese locals wanting to connect with people from other cultures.

Why should you learn Japanese?

If you are living in a big city, you should be able to get by in day to day life without Japanese. There are plenty of expats who have lived in Japan for years or even decades that feel they have a good standard of life despite not being able to speak or read any Japanese. Japan is, after all, a highly developed country where you can find all of 'necessities' of a modern life—you can get a nice place to live, go about your daily business in a safe environment, have readily available food and water, make friends (Japanese, western or otherwise), readily use technology (phones, internet), and so on.

This is fine if it's enough to satisfy one's needs; however, there are also plenty of perks to picking up some of the native language that expats might want to consider.

1) You can be more independent

The most obvious advantage to learning the native tongue is the practical side of it. If you were to go to a cafe, you could get by fine with just an English menu, sure. But what if that cafe doesn't have an English menu? What if they did, but it only gives you a small selection of the whole menu? (This happens a lot...) If you spend a few weeks teaching yourself katakana (the phonetic alphabet used for foreign loan-words), you will be able to read common menu items like 'salad', 'sandwich', 'juice' and 'coffee' and be able to order them on your own.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it actually is. Think about having this autonomy, but in slightly more difficult situations like setting up your own phone contract, going to the doctors or even taking out a loan at the bank. Your Japanese friends might not always be able to come with you at times like these.

While it would take a lot of effort on your part to get to the point where you can do these things, the case still remains that when you can speak Japanese, the world around you will suddenly open up. Just by learning the two phonetic alphabets and a few simple 'kanji' (characters derived from Chinese), you will suddenly be able to read and understand more of the writing and signs that surround you everyday and—more importantly—be able to communicate with native speakers as well.

Although learning Japanese might sound daunting at first, particularly since its so different from European languages, this challenge will invariably reward you with a far more interesting and engaging lifestyle.

2) You can learn more about your host culture

Related to point 1, when you get to an intermediate level of Japanese you will start to realise there are words and phrases that don't translate exactly into English. This is the point where you start to understand how closely language is tied to culture. For example, Japanese has many polite phrases and levels of politeness because taking the thoughts and feelings of others into consideration is important in Japanese culture. All of a sudden, you will start to 'think more like a Japanese' and social customs will begin to make more sense.

Moreover, the 'group mentality' that Japanese people have is also reflected in their work culture; therefore, as a business owner, learning Japanese can have its advantages in getting inside the heads of your business partners, clients and customers.

3) You can learn more about yourself

There is also one more benefit that goes along with the one mentioned in point 2—you will learn more about yourself. By learning more about another culture and how those people think, you will start to reflect about your own background and culture as well. You will start to notice the reasons why things are different. Some customs and ways of doing things you may disagree with, while for others you may decide they work out much better than in your own country. This ability to take a step back and think critically can have its benefits, as you will learn to be more open-minded and accepting and have better judgement. This is what's known as 'becoming more worldly'.

How to study Japanese

Of course, there are many ways to study Japanese and the 'right' method of doing it depends on the individual's learning style:

Nihongo gakko ('Japanese schools')—Large Japanese cities will have no shortage of Japanese-language schools for expats and foreign residents. Taking classes will be particularly useful for those starting out as you get support from your teacher and be able to learn in a more structured way. However, you can find classes for whatever level you are, whether you're a beginner or advanced. There are private Japanese-language schools, but you can also contact your city's international affairs office to see if they run their own classes.

Private tutor—This is another good way to learn whatever your language level. The one-on-one format means that you can progress much faster and that you can also get lessons targeted specifically towards you and your interests. There will be plenty of Japanese-language tutors available in the larger cities and may be a good way to make friends too!

Universities—Some universities may offer a Japanese-language course open to anyone. This may come in the form of an official language course in the universities 'exchange department' and will be run by qualified teachers. Or if they have an English Studies department, the university may run a course where their students will offer Japanese tuition to foreigners at a heavily-reduced cost, or even free! Try calling your local universities to see if this is something they do.

Japanese/ English Exchange Groups—More of a social function, there are plenty of private groups in the big cities where foreigners and local Japanese people come to make friends and practice their second language. This may not be as structured as taking a class, but its certainly more fun!

DIY Japanese—Of course, there's always the option of teaching yourself. Not for the faint-hearted, this is recommended for people who already have a grasp on the basics. However, if you're a language whiz, or just very brave, it is possible to go solo—plenty of people have done it before!

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT)
The JLPT is an exam that measures the taker's Japanese language proficiency, heavily focusing on vocabulary, kanji (chinese characters used in Japanese), grammar and reading and listening skills. It is administered by the Ministry of Education through Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (JEES). The 5-tier exam is used as an international standard, with the same exam being administered both in Japan and around the world on the same day. People who pass the highest level, called N1 (the lowest being N5), are internationally considered to have a high enough ability to be employed in a Japanese-speaking role. Inside Japan, N1 can grant you acceptance to Japanese universities, allow you to get a job in a Japanese company and allow foreign medical professionals to get a Japanese license.

So what does this mean for a foreign entreneur who isn't looking to work for a Japanese company?

First of all, you do not have to take the JLPT even if you are learning the language yourself, but it can be a useful tool to use as a benchmark to improve your ability. Most Japanese-language books, apps and tools are targeted towards the JLPT, so you can always use these to follow some kind of structure, even if you do not plan on taking the test.

Secondly, as a potential employer it is good for you to be aware of the JLPT and know what the levels mean if you want to hire Japanese-speaking foreigners.

The JLPT is far from the be all and end all of Japanese-language learning, but it has its advantages to test your own skills as well as others'.

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